(Rom. 5:15-19) Is Paul saying that everyone will be forgiven in the end?

CLAIM: Universalists argue that Adam’s sin affected everyone on Earth, and Jesus’ work on the Cross will also make everyone righteous. After all, Paul writes, “As through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18-19). Does this mean that all people will be saved in the end?

RESPONSE: This passage does not support universalism for a number of reasons:

First, the Bible repeatedly states that some will be in hell. In the greater context of the Bible, it is clear that some people will not be in heaven, but they will be separated from God in hell (Rev. 20:11-15; Mt. 25:31-46; 2 Thess. 1:9). For instance, consider Judas. Jesus said of Judas: “It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Mt. 26:24). If Judas would have been saved in the end, then it would have been better for him to be born! Earlier in Romans, Paul refers to those who “perish” without the law (2:12). Later in the letter, he writes that some of his Jewish brothers will be “accursed” (9:3). Clearly, Paul did not believe that all people would be saved.

Second, the context denies this. In Romans 5:17, we read that we need to “receive” this grace, in order for it to count for us. Paul spends most of Romans 5:12-19 showing the similarities between Adam and Jesus. But in this section, Paul makes a crucial difference: To get Adam’s condemnation, we merely need to be born, but to get Jesus’ forgiveness, we need to willingly “receive” his justification.[1] Jesus paid the price for the sins of all people (1 Jn. 2:2; 1 Tim. 4:10; 2 Cor. 5:15; Titus 2:11), but people need to receive this gift in order for it to apply to them. John writes, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God” (Jn. 1:12). Moo comments, “The importance of this qualification can hardly be overemphasized. For it reminds us—lest we have forgotten Rom. 1–4!—that righteousness and life are for those who respond to God’s grace in Christ and that they are only for those who respond.”[2]

In this passage, Paul is arguing that we are either “in Adam” or “in Christ. If we are “in Adam,” we receive death. If we are “in Christ,” we receive life. Therefore, when Paul writes “all men” in verse 18, he is referring to all those who are represented by Jesus—just as the earlier “all” represents all those represented by Adam (v.18). The very next verse makes this explicit by stating that many were made sinners” and many will be made righteous” (v.19). Mounce writes, “Context indicates that Paul was comparing the fate of those who are in Adam (the position of all by virtue of their birth into the human race) and the blessings of those who are in Christ (the position of all who have responded in faith).”[3] Elsewhere, he writes, “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).

Third, Paul is not writing about the QUANTITY of God’s grace, but the QUALITY of God’s grace. In verse 17, Paul writes, “If by the transgression of the one, death reigned… much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.” Paul is not saying “much more” will be saved rather than die (quantity). This would be impossible. After all, how can more people be saved than were born into sin? Instead, this expression (“much more”) refers to Jesus’ love being qualitatively different than Adam’s sin.[4]

[1] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 193.

[2] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 340.

[3] Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 145.

[4] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 184.